House passes mandatory minimums bill

David Weissman
  • Bill to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences, ruled unconstitutional in 2015, passes House.
  • Gov. Wolf strongly opposed to mandatory minimums, but there's no guarantee he'd veto bill.
  • Mandatory minimums would cost up $85 million annually, more than savings from closing state prison.

A bill to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes passed through the House this week for the second year in a row.

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The state law, which sets mandatory minimum jail time and/or fines for various crimes, including high-level drug trafficking, child abuse and crimes committed using a gun, was ruled unconstitutional in 2015.

In accordance with the court's ruling, the bill — introduced by former prosecutor Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery County — would require juries to make the determination beyond a reasonable doubt for when a defendant qualifies for mandatory minimum sentencing instead of the judge making that ruling.

Law-enforcement groups, including the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, Fraternal Order of Police, Pennsylvania State Troopers Association and Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, all have expressed support for reinstating the law.

Lawmakers aim to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing

House Bill 741 passed 122-67 on Wednesday with three Republicans opposing the bill and 13 Democrats supporting it.

Opposition: Opponents of the legislation, including the American Civil Liberties Union and state Department of Corrections, point to a 2009 study that concluded mandatory minimum sentences do not deter crime or reduce recidivism.

Rick Robinson, a local defense attorney at MPL Law Firm, said he always has been against mandatory minimums because they take discretion away from judges.

He's seen a drop in jail time for several of his clients since the law was ruled unconstitutional, including one defendant who had his 10-20-year sentence dropped to 3-6 years.

J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf's office, wrote in a statement that Wolf supports tough sentencing for violent criminals, but he agrees with criminal justice advocates that "mandatory minimums provide little enhancement to public safety while ballooning the already escalating cost to taxpayers of our criminal justice system."

Budget estimates show that bringing back the law could cost up to $85 million per year, which is more than the $81 million in annual savings the administration expects from its recent decision to close the State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh effective June 30.

Asked whether passage of this bill would jeopardize that closure, Abbott wrote that the administration estimates it would need to account for an additional 1,800 beds annually, nearly the exact amount of beds available at SCI Pittsburgh.

Still, Abbott stopped short of stating that Wolf would veto the bill if it made it to his desk, instead writing, "At this point, we just remain strongly opposed."

The bill will likely move next to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it was never brought up for a vote last session.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.